We come today to remember and celebrate the life of Mike Norwood. Over the past week so many people have reached out to us to tell us that they loved Dad and what a great man he was. I know after reading your kind words that no one would dispute that Dad was a man of honor and integrity. He believed in doing what was right and he lived it. Eagle Scout, Class President, Green Beret, Police Chief – these titles arent handed out lightly and the titles themselves probably paint a better picture of his moral character than my words could.
You knew him as Big Mike, or Stork in high school, or co-worker or friend. We thought of Dad as our own big teddy bear. Today, I want to paint a picture of who he was to me and my sister and my mom.
Dad loved studying ancestry – he traced us Mississippi Norwoods to William the Conqueror. He had a love of history, especially the Civil War era. Dad excelled at remembering trivial details so when Trivial Pursuit came out, he was in heaven. He rarely lost and when he did he was none too pleased. Dad loved watching political news shows and football but if you asked him about either he would declare that he didn’t care about any of it. Dad wasn’t a beach guy but he loved boats and water. He loved to go on cruises and I think that mom and dads retirement cruise to Alaska may have been his favorite trip. He loved to sit in a rocker on the back porch with a cocktail. Dad was an excellent grill man, having worked as a short order cook/night watchman at a diner during college. Eggs any way you like, pancakes, grilled cheese sandwiches – his would knock your socks off. Dad loved George Jones, Abba and Hall and Oates. He loved to eat fried fish and fried chicken, potato salad, pimiento cheese and biscuits and gravy. He loved crystal lite and unsweet tea and boxed wine. Dad loved Marilyn Monroe and air conditioning and his dog Jasper.
Dad loved a good movie – Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Hoosiers. He loved comedies – I cant watch Vacation or Tommy Boy or Naked Gun without remembering his laughter. He loved a good western and he loved finding one liners to quiz us with – “If God didn’t want them shorn he wouldn’t have made them sheep” and “We deal in lead, friend” and “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?” and most recently “Men are going to die here today and I’m gonna kill ’em.” His all-time favorite movie was the Searchers and he loved to quote John Wayne saying “That’ll be the day.”
He loved his grandbabies, especially when they were babies. When my daughter, his first grandchild, was born, it surprised us all how taken he was with her. He would rush through meals so that he could be the one to hold her and walk her around. He just about ruined her sleep training because he would abscond with her and go rock her until she fell asleep on him and then he would just hold her until she woke up. This is how he was with all four of his grandchildren. As they got older he took them fishing, took them in the jeep for ice cream, and took them on tractor rides.
He loved his girls, Amy and me. Most girls think of their dad as a hero but in our case it was actually true. We were in awe of him and were so proud that this big strong man was our dad. He was the one who could make the big stacks of pancakes and the best grilled cheese sandwiches. He was the one who would stir up our ice cream to make it “swirled.” He was the one who carved the pumpkin and would sometimes win the scariest pumpkin contest. He was the one who would play horsie – on his hands and knees with us riding on his back until his knees bled. He was the one that would take us to Jack in the Box somtimes for dinner – once or twice he even let us eat inside, which was huge. He was the one who would put us on his shoulders in the pool, step out of the water wobbling around and jump off the diving board with us screaming and clawing at his face. He was the one who read us The Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve. He was the only one who could walk us down the aisle on our wedding day. I dont remember him ever yelling at us, and he certainly never spanked us (though he was fine with Mom doing it). I dont remember him ever even punishing us. But we did our best not to cross him because he could shame you with a look and we never wanted to disappoint him.
When I was in high school, Dad and I were sitting on the back swing one evening as we liked to do. Our conversation turned serious and Dad said that when his own father was dying, he went to visit him at the hospital and that was the first time that Dad’s father ever told Dad that he loved him. Dad said that at that moment he promised himself that if he ever had kids, he wouldnt wait until he was dying to tell them that he loved them. It was such a comfort during Dad’s illness to remember that story and know how well he had lived up to the promise he had made.
He did love us and he told us often. Even if he hadn’t told us, it was eveident from the way he acted. When I was about four, I had a teddy bear that I loved. One morning Dad dropped me off at the babysitter and convinced me to leave Teddy in the car. When he picked me up that night, Teddy wasnt in the car. I remember him going back out that night and after what seemed like an eternity, he brought home a new teddy bear. As a teenager, I mentioned that story to Amy and she laughed and said “You know he just got rid of it, dont you? It was probably gross and needed to be replaced.” I went to Dad and asked. He shook his head and put his hands up to his face. I thought he was going to tell me that Amy was right. Instead, he sighed and said, “I went back to the police station and I looked under every car in that parking garage. And then I went inside to ask.” He looked at me and said,” Do you know what it’s like to walk into a police precinct and ask the desk sergeant if anyone has turned in a teddy bear?” His love for us overrode his personal pride.
Dad loved my mom. They met at an apartment pool party in the early 70’s. Some of the guys at Dads apartment complex had the phone number to the stewardess school dorm. Of course they somehow knew when a new crop of stewardess trainees had arrived and they would call the dorm and tell the girls that there would be a party. If the girls would be ready outside at a certain time, some men would come pick them up and take them. Who thinks this sounds like a good idea? I can only imagine Dad’s reaction if I had been in Mom’s place at age 22. But Mom went to the party and when she was introduced to Dad, he clutched at his chest and said “I’m in love!” And he was from that day on.
Their 41 year marriage was a testament to what a marriage should be. In fact, dad was such a good model of what a husband should be that it was basically impossible for any suitor to stand a chance with me or Amy. I am sure that Dad was fine with that. The one time in high school that I did bring a boy home, Dad came out to meet him in overalls with his gun casually resting in his arm. It would be another seven years before I brought a boy to meet my dad. And this boy lived up to my high expectations. Amy and I both have Dad to thank for the fact that we have such wonderful husbands.
Mom and Dad have always been two halves of a whole. They told each other everything and always made decisions as a team. Even when Dad was traveling so much, I dont know if they ever went a day without talking on the phone. After he retired and they were together every day Dad would still call mom if she was out during the day just to see how she was. He missed her even when she left for a few hours. He used to love a song from Kathy Mattea that said “Where have you been? I’m just not myself when youre away.” Mom will miss him so much but it breaks my heart to imagine if he had lost her.
Dad would have done anything for Mom. I know that because when I was 16 he moved us to Chapel Hill, making good on an old promise to Mom that they would one day leave Texas for North Carolina, which is where she felt was home. He got an apartment in Dallas where he lived during the week. He would fly home on weekends, if there were enough standby seats available. For four years it was this way, him driving to and from the airpport, waiting for flights, shoving his tall frame into the middle seat to see us for a day or two before returning to his quiet apartment alone. As unpleasant as the traveling was, he only missed a few weekends during the whole four years. Once I returned to Dallas for a visit. I was in a friend’s car at a stop light. Across the intersection I saw Dad. He was behind the wheel of our tiny Honda civic. It was an incredibly hot day but the window was rolled down – the AC in the civic never worked well. Dad looked hot and worn down. I immediately felt a sense of injustice – this was my dad, the great and strong and good man that I loved and here he was like this. He should have been in a car with more legroom and better air conditioning. He should have been on the way home from a satisfying job to a house filled with loved ones. But he wasn’t. And the reason why is because he loved mom, and us, so much. I think this may be similar to how the disciples felt when Jesus insisted on washing their feet. Christlike-humility – that’s what I saw in my father that day.
Which brings me to the final point. Dad loved The Lord… although he made a pretty good argument otherwise for about 40 years. A large part of my spiritual journey as a child and young adult was wrapped up in trying to work out Dad’s salvation. He was the most moral and loving person I knew. I saw hints that he believed in God but I wasn’t sure if he had a relationship with God. Catholic rule-follower that I was, I was worried that Dad’s goodness wouldn’t be enough to save him. I dont stand here claiming to understand how God works but I can stand here and joyfully say that today I have no doubt about where Dad is. Dad tried to give up on God for whatever reason but God wouldnt give up on Dad. And Mom wouldn’t give up on Dad either. At her suggestion, about six years ago, he agreed that it was time to find a place where they could worship together. Seeing him come back to church but, most importantly, to Christ is one of the greatest blessings of my life. In fact, the last place Dad went before becoming ill was his grandson’s baptism. Dad renewed his baptismal vows that day. A beautiful act at the end of a blessed life. Mom, Amy and I will miss dad dearly but are so thankful to have been his girls. God is good.
SERVICE FOR MIKE NORWOOD
Pastor Bob Dunham, University Presbyterian Church
I want to read one more passage today, and it may seem a bit odd for this December afternoon, but bear with me. There is much I could say about Mike today: about his integrity, his deep commitment to his family; his willingness to give of himself; his strong moral compass; the sense of humor that lay behind his more serious demeanor. I could tell about how he dropped out of the Air Force Academy because his father was gravely ill and he felt his family needed him. There are lots of things I could say, but because Mary-Evelyn has done such a lovely remembrance of her father and of those same qualities, I’m going to speak today not so much about Mike, but about the God Mike came to embrace.
The passage I will read now is the account of the first Easter morning from the Gospel according to Matthew:
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’
The story I just read actually begins centuries earlier. It begins when mysterious, unexpected visitors suddenly drop in on an elderly couple at their desert tent. Where the visitors come from is not readily apparent, though some commentators have suggested that they were angels incognito – without wings, halos, or white garb. What we do know is that they bring the most improbable news… that the elderly couple, whose names are Abraham and Sarah, are going to have a child. Now, we are talking elderly here. Abraham had just celebrated his 99th birthday a while back, and Sarah was not much younger; and the stranger/angel/visitors were telling them that they were going to start a family. The strangers break the news to Abraham, but Sarah overhears from just inside the tent.
What happens next is one of my favorite moments in all of Scripture, a moment so full of humanity. There is no syrupy piety here… no instant compliance or embrace of the divine announcement. Sarah does not say, “Well, this must be a message from God.” She doesn’t come out to bow before the strangers and thank them for the good news they have brought. No, Sarah laughs.
Abraham and Sarah had spent decades hoping for such news, wanting a child. It had been for them a source of tension and contention. And the years of barrenness had surely taken their toll on Sarah. But now in this moment Sarah can’t help herself. She is struck by the sheer incongruity of it. The thought is so ludicrous. And so she laughs.
And the visitors call her hand. Actually, the Book of Genesis says that the Lord calls her hand, which raises the stakes. But whoever says it, someone asks Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” And Sarah, a bit embarrassed now, tries to deny that she laughed, covering her face. But her eyes betray her smile. And the stranger, or the Lord, says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Is anything impossible with God? Is barrenness and decay the last word, or is God capable of doing something new? Well, of course God can… but Sarah laughed.
+ + +
Centuries later the story continues, and it continues with another improbable announcement of a birth. This time, the stranger has a name, Gabriel, and Luke records that Gabriel is an angel of the Lord – a messenger from God. And this time it is not Sarah, but a young girl named Mary who receives the surprising announcement. Unlike Sarah, Mary doesn’t laugh… for she is terrified… and perplexed. What could this possibly mean? She is to have child? How could she be pregnant? She had had only one man in her life, the one to whom she had been betrothed, and their relationship had not been that kind of relationship. How could this be?
And Gabriel answers her, you may remember, with an answer that seems to answer the question asked centuries earlier by the one who spoke to Abraham and Sarah. In the desert he had asked them, “Is anything too wonderful to the Lord?” And now Gabriel, peering into the face of a frightened teenager, offers words of confidence. “With God,” says the angel, “nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37)
And Mary, at once timid and strong, hears and believes what the angel says to her, and ponders the promise in her heart, even later when, as Luke describes it, it would pierce her soul like a sword. Of course, that would not happen until decades later, on a Friday when the sky turned black as night and the child she had borne was put to death on a cross.
+ + +
From that scene at the cross we fast-forward again, only this time just two days. Again, an angel comes as a messenger. It is not a mysterious stranger in the desert. It is not Gabriel, speaking in hushed tones to a shivering girl. This angel is more brazen. This time the recipients of the message are three women, but the angel’s message is every bit as startling and improbable as those of his predecessors.
Now, this angel is a bit casual. A friend of mine said once, “I love the way the angel sits on the stone. I can just see him crossing his arms and cavalierly tapping his foot. It is the ultimate expression of power, that the stone that would contain Jesus in death is reduced to a bench for an angel.” And the message he brings is the most startling and remarkable and powerful news of all. That the God who turned barrenness into birth, the God who had become incarnate in a baby born in a barn… that the same God had now raised Jesus from the dead. Death no longer had the final word. God’s eternity had broken into ordinary time. And despite the presence of the principalities and powers, despite the illusion that darkness and death were in control, the truth was that God had the final word, and His word was life. It is that word I claim for Mike Norwood today.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the angel-strangers asked Abraham and Sarah? “With God,” said Gabriel to Mary, “nothing is impossible.” And now the Easter angel on his gravestone-bench, says to the women, “Sit down, friends, I’ve got news. He ain’t here. Death could not hold him. With God even the impossible is possible.”
The situation at the tomb had seemed to be under control. Everybody knew that Jesus was dead. The tomb had been secured with a massive stone. At the urging of the chief priests and the Pharisees, Pilate had dispatched a select group of soldiers to guard the tomb. Crucified. Dead. Buried. Sealed. Guarded.
But the angel sat on his gravestone-bench, a smile on his face, whistling a stirring tune – a melody the women could not get out of their heads, a refrain that would one day inspire Haydn and Brahms and Handel, a song the church has been singing ever since. The angel knew. He knew that despite the efforts of all the principalities and powers, God had the final word. He knew that what seemed to be the end of hope had been turned into hope’s beginning. He knew that there was coming a day when at last God would dwell in human hearts, wiping away human tears, when death and mourning and crying and pain would be no more. The angel knew.
And despite the best efforts of the soldiers and the religious leaders to keep the news quiet, or at least to put a different spin on it, the confidence of the angel’s promise was contagious. The women ran from the place in awe and great joy to share the news.
And the news is this: that earth has no power to thwart the will of God… that God’s will is for life and wholeness, even when it seems that death has the final word… that hope rests not in human schemes but in God’s power to save. The news is this: that though we still grieve over loved ones, still suffer distress and pain, God has not abandoned us. The news is this: that with the assurance of the resurrection, we can live and die, we can lay our loved ones in the earth, and still face the future with a measure of courage and confidence. The news is this: that the same power that rolled away the stone is capable of sustaining us in the midst of great tribulation… and turning even the most solemn of moments into an occasion for joy.
Some years ago now, just before Easter, Charles Osgood offered a report on the CBS Evening News, which was a remembrance which summed up something of what we try to remember this day. In his report, Osgood remembered Ronald Evans, the Apollo Seventeen astronaut who had died earlier that year at the age of 56, too young for anyone to die. Osgood remembered how, when Evans stepped out of his capsule to walk into the void of outer space, his heartbeat doubled to 140 beats per minute, and the first words out of his mouth were, ”Hot-diggety-dog!” What an eloquent affirmation of life! What better thing to say at such a wonderful, exhilarating moment? “Hot-diggety-dog!”
Somewhere suspended between the sun and the moon, in the vastness of God’s eternity, this day I can imagine Mike Norwood saying something like that… though maybe with John Wayne’s voice (“Hot-diggety-dog, Pilgrim!). Now, I know Mike was often restrained, an introvert in many ways. But he did know joy in his life, and given the startling landscapes of God’s eternal realm, in that face-to-face reality after all those years of seeing only in a mirror dimly, I would not be surprised if he were staring wide-eyed with wonder and saying, “Hot-diggety-dog!” And off to the side, there might just be that Easter angel, sitting on a stone and laughing.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? With God nothing is impossible! Those mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah’s desert tent knew it. The angel Gabriel said as much to Mary. And the Easter angel, sitting on his gravestone bench, knew it, too. He knew that despite the treachery and tyranny, darkness and death that seemingly had carried the day, the power of love had once again been set loose in the world. He knew how the story was going to end. From his cemetery bench he had seen and heard it all. And he told it to the women, and they shared the news with the other disciples, and the disciples told others, and the word spread. Eventually someone told you. Someone told me. And it’s up to us to tell the story still… up to us to share the good news of Easter.
Love is loose in the world. That is the message the Easter angel wants us to share. It is the message Mike Norwood took to heart – and the love that accompanied him in and out of consciousness during his sojourn in the valley of the shadow. It is the good news that buoys our hearts even on this difficult day. The Lord is risen! Love is loose in the world! Hot-diggety-dog, Mike! Hot-diggety-dog!
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Loving and gracious God, whose presence is comfort, whose Word is strength, we gather in Your loving presence today with hearts weighed down by sorrow, yet also overflowing with gratitude, clinging to the promises You have offered us. Though the deep sense of absence and grief is foremost in our minds, we do lay also before You this day our grateful thanksgiving – for the evidence of Your love among us, and especially for the gift You gave to us by sending Mike Norwood into our lives. Though we are sad beyond measure that he is gone too soon from our midst, we would lift up before you the gift of his life, and the many gifts You gave to him, and through him to us and to so many, many others.
You gave Mike a quick mind, a powerful inquisitiveness, a rich sense of humor. We thank You that we have been privileged beneficiaries of all three. We thank You for the passions of his life – his family, most of all, but also his commitment to his life’s labors and to the people with whom he worked, and in more recent years, his strong investment in the life of Your church. We thank You for the lives he touched and shaped, for the challenges he set before us with his own integrity. We give thanks for his legacy of love and affection and steadfastness in his years of marriage to Gail, for the partnership they forged, for the grace that enabled them to deal with distance and separation. We give thanks for the joy and pride he voiced and the sparkle that filled his eyes when he spoke of Mary-Evelyn and Amy, of the sons he later claimed as his own, and the grandchildren who were his abiding source of joy and gratitude. We give thanks for the stories he told and for the adventures he shared. We give thanks for the sacrifices he made in his life for the sake of his family, for his uncommon valor and dedication to duty in the service of his country, even though it filled him with sadness and grief. We give thanks for his professional service of community and nation in pursuit of the common good. We would also name before you this day the deep and abiding relationships he cultivated with so many, which is the source of our deep sense of absence here this afternoon. In his interaction with his family, in his life’s labors, in his devotion to Your church, in his friendships with so many, he was always able and willing to speak words of encouragement and support, to laugh with us and at himself, and yet to hold fast to what he believed with an unmistakable integrity. In humility and faith he would have said, and we would now claim, that such strengths of character were gifts of Your grace. And indeed they are, and so we give You thanks for Mike this day.
We are grateful, too, O God, that for Mike the end came quietly after such a long siege in the hospital, and that he is no longer tethered to this world by IVS and vents and central lines … but once again is free to fly now by Your grace, and that he has come into the joy and peace and wholeness of life that You have promised in Your eternal presence. We entrust into Your everlasting care this one we oncde held close.
Yet, O God, we tremble this day with sadness and grief at the death of this strong and gentle man with the wise heart, this one whom we have loved so fiercely. Deal tenderly, we pray, with those of us gathered here who are weighed down today by such a profound sense of loss. We pray especially for Gail, for Mary-Evelyn and Andy, for Amy and Don, for the grandchildren: Ella Kathryn and Woody, Samuel and Isaac; and for Mike’s brothers and sisters: Lou Ann, James, Sue and David. We pray for all Mike’s friends and colleagues gathered here today. Grant to each of them and all of them Your peace, we pray. More than that grant strength… and courage… and hope enough to see our way through these dark and difficult days. Instill in us the promise of Easter, that in You is light and life, light and life that even the darkness and the powers of death will never overcome. Give us such confidence, we pray, that we may shape our lives around Your purposes, as did Mike, that like him we may be alert to the signs of Your grace and goodness all around us.
We make our prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, who invites us into His care and promises us rest; who then bids us to follow, and who teaches us, in all circumstances of need, to pray and not just to say: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, New York, Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 118.
 Christine Chakoian, in a paper presented to the January 1999 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
 John B. Rogers, Jr., “We Who Must Die Demand a Miracle,” sermon published in the Easter, 1998 issue of Journal for Preachers.
 My colleague Jon Walton once used this story to punctuate an Easter sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, Delaware. This meditation draws substantially from that sermon.